Topics: Barack Obama

Obama's new legislative director hits the reset button

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Politics,White House,Congress,Barack Obama,John Boehner,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Chuck Schumer,Eric Cantor,Katie Beirne Fallon

Katie Beirne Fallon, President Obama's new top liaison to Congress, appears determined to be everything her predecessor wasn't.

Early this month, she took over the top White House congressional lobbying post from Miguel Rodriguez, an affable but low-key legislative strategist who drew complaints from many Republicans and even some Democrats on Capitol Hill who said they had never met him and couldn't pick him out of a lineup.

Just a month into the new role, no one would accuse Fallon of keeping a low profile. Six-foot-tall before heels, the 38-year-old former staffer to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who ran the communications war room he headed, has been furiously reaching out to House GOP leaders and their staffs, trying to repair the damaged relationship between the White House and Republicans.

Fallon has met Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and has plans to reach out to House GOP chairmen, as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the coming days.

Republicans on the Hill say their first impressions of Fallon are positive – that she comes across as down-to-earth and they appreciate the face-time.

“It's troubling that five years into the presidency basic outreach is new and newsy, but it is still welcome,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.

But Republicans are wary about her background as a Schumer aide and the instrumental role she's playing in putting together a very political election-year agenda for Obama and congressional Democrats.

Fallon spent years working for Schumer, an aggressive Capitol Hill partisan, joining his staff in 2007 and quickly rising to the position of legislative director before becoming the staff director of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center, which coordinates messaging for the Senate Democratic leadership.

In early 2012, she married Brian Fallon, a former top Schumer spokesman who moved over to run Attorney General Eric Holder's press operation last year. The consummate Washington pair has admitted to starting their days hashing over issues and ending them by reviewing their ups and downs.

Despite his reputation as a fierce partisan, Schumer knew when it was time to compromise and cut a deal, and he taught his staff to spot those opportunities too, said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and one of Fallon's predecessors in the war room.

“Katie understands that, and I am confident that Republicans will soon come to appreciate that as well,” he said.

A Democratic strategist who has worked closely with Fallon over the years said she succeeded in Schumer's inner circle because, unlike many of the aides who mirrored their boss' combative style, she doesn't “take the bait.”

“She's just by nature patient and solution-oriented,” the strategist said. “She commands respect because she's really smart and always added something to the discussion.”

Even Republican Senate aides who have worked on the opposite side of an issue say they respect and trust her.

“She has built a reputation for being a hard worker and a strong advocate for her side but also a straight shooter - it's not a combination shared by everyone in Washington,” said Brian Walsh, a former GOP Senate staffer who served as a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Few in Washington reach the White House without a strong ambitious streak, and Fallon is no exception.

The second of eight siblings raised in a Roman Catholic family in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, Fallon was always an outstanding student, and admitted to being fiercely competitive, telling Vogue in 2012 that in high school, “I couldn't live with myself if I wasn't top of the class.”

The high standards paid off when she graduated first in her high school class, summa cum laude from Notre Dame and won a Marshall Scholarship to study in Britain, where she earned two master's degrees.

After college she worked for two and a half years at Lehman Brothers in an investment-banking job that was lucrative but left her feeling a little empty.

“I wanted to do something that added value to society,” she said at the time.

It's this political drive that has Republicans worried. Fallon was brought in as part of a staff shake-up aimed at helping Obama recover and go on offense after the botched health care rollout.

Obama has threatened to use more executive actions, saying he has “a pen and a phone” and is ready to bypass Congress in his “year of action.” His impatience will make Fallon’s outreach more challenging.

“Staff can only do so much,” said John Feehery, a former spokesman for then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “In the end, it's really the president who can move the ball forward, but [Obama] seems to be going out of his way to say that he will go it alone without Congress on many issues.”

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